Have you ever noticed your attention wanders off from the task at hand and moves from one subject to another? Everyone’s mind wanders. We apparently spend at least half of our waking life in the state of mind wandering. There’s even a term for it in Buddhism – they call it the monkey mind.
What we put our attention to is part of how we have choice in life.
It can have many benefits, allowing for creativity and envisioning new futures. We can also find ourselves getting distracted and not completing tasks that are important to us.
We can train our minds to wander less often and be at choice more. Contemplative practices do that for us.
Neuroscience has turned its attention to mind wandering as well. Dr. Amishi Jha is the director of contemplative neuroscience for the mindfulness research and practice initiative and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami. She has studied mind wandering and has put together various mindfulness exercises to help with our focus.
A simple one she created and teaches is called “The Mindfulness of Breathing Exercise.” She’s taught this to soldiers, healthcare workers and others in high stress environments. I love it because it’s another tool to draw on that is with us all the time – our breathe.
Here’s how she described the exercise:
“Sit in an upright, stable, and alert posture. And for the period of time, we’re going to do this short practice (and you can do it for much longer than I’m going to do here), your task is to pay attention to the sensations of breathing…
1) Tune into the breath-related sensations. So, once you get settled, with your eyes comfortably lowered or closed, you’re going to focus in on the sensation that’s most prominent to you tied to your breathing. Perhaps it’s the coolness of the air in and out of your nostrils, or the abdomen moving up or down, your shoulders, whatever bodily sensation tied to breathing feels most prominent, that’s what you will focus on for the period of this formal practice.
2) Pay attention to what arises in your mind. The second part of this instruction, after you’ve selected your focus and you’ve committed to maintaining your attention there, is to pay attention to what arises in the mind. Notice when mind wandering occurs and your attention is moved off of the target for where your attention should be. Notice when there might be thoughts, sensations, memories that arise that aren’t about the breath at all. And when this happens, simply return your attention back to the breath-related sensations. Nothing special to do, just simply return the attention back to the breath.
That’s it! That’s the practice.“
“Having a mind that wanders off-leash is not a harmless little stroll. You miss stuff, you make mistakes, your mood sours.” … Amishi Jha